The Real Risks of Chaos

October 21, 2011, 05:41 PM

Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Islamist” and blogs at The Arab Street. He is on Twitter as @Ed_Husain.

Qaddafi’s death lifts the morale of the besieged protesters in countries like Syria and Yemen. Had he survived, and was successful in seeking sanctuary in a third country, or worse, mobilizing Libyan tribes against the new government, then the transition to democracy would have been more costly. The ignominious death of the longest-ruling and most pompous of Arab dictators will also strike fear in the hearts of monarchs and presidents who have yet to yield to popular demands for reform in the region.

Getting rid of dictators may turn out to be easy compared with creating stable democracies that can deliver for their people.

But in Qaddafi’s death were also clues to the real risks of chaos and extremism that can spread in the region. The lack of Arab outcry, for example, about the public manhandling and mobile-phone recording of his blood-stained corpse by his killers is an indication that yesterday’s rebels are not necessarily prepared to embrace democratic culture. Why was Qaddafi not put on trial after capture, like the Nazis at Nuremberg, instead of being killed, with a baying mob allowed to parade and cheer around him?

Democracy is about much more than removal of dictators and elections. The rule of law, due process, human rights and the vital need for a democratic culture is yet to emerge in the region. In the absence of the manifestation of these principles, we are seeing Christians being killed in Egypt, cinemas being burnt in Tunisia, and demands for hard-line interpretations of sharia as state law being made by Salafist groups.

All is not lost. These are the short-term challenges the region will face. But unless a pluralist, democratic mind-set grips the political classes, who can then respond to people’s needs for jobs, houses, health care and education, then we will see increased conflict in the region. Put simply, ridding dictators will seem easier than embedding democracies that can deliver for their people.

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